The Last Jew
By Noah Gordon
Thomas Dunne Books
St. Martin’s Griffin, New York: 2000
The magnitude of the Holocaust surely has no parallel in Jewish history. And yet, there was another painful epoch in the distant past that also was characterized by gruesome atrocities, excessive loss of life and property and the permanent disappearance of a large and illustrious Jewish population from history. That era was the Spanish Inquisition during which Jews were faced with conversion or exile. Those who converted (Crypto-Jews) were later hunted down amid accusations of heresy and many were burned at the stake for living as Christians and practicing Judaism in secret.
The Last Jew, a vivid and extensively researched and detailed historical novel by American author Noah Gordon, portrays the plight of the Jews in Inquisition-era Spain. The story masterfully blends period events and historic figures with adventure, romance and high suspense to create an interesting and eventful work that stimulates our desire and curiosity to read on.
Protagonist Jonah Toledano, the son of a prominent Jewish silversmith, manages to escape the worst of the Inquisition, while at the same time, refusing to become a converso. His father and younger brother have been murdered but their separate killings involve more than just religious hatred. They center on the disappearance and probable theft of a holy object, which becomes the focus of Toledano’s unrelenting search.
During the course of the story, the reader travels with Toledano through a patchwork of subcultures in Spain as he tries out various occupations in an attempt to survive the vagaries and hatred of the Inquisition. He travels to Granada and interacts with the local Roma (gypsies). Then he moves to Gibraltar where he works as a metal working apprentice. And finally, he tries his luck at sea, working briefly as a seaman aboard a cargo ship.
The book culminates in a personal triumph as Toledano ultimately excels as a physician, which provides him with the wealth and respect he craves as well as the means of countering the villains of the Inquisition. However, his attempts to understand historic events remain unsatisfying. Some of the most moving episodes in the book touch on Toledano’s inner conflicts and his desire to preserve his religious identify.
Overall, The Last Jew is a compelling novel that depicts danger and pain as well as individual heroism in an epoch of misery and darkness. The introductory chapters are marred slightly by some tedious digressions as the author establishes the setting and period realism. But if the reader persists, the novel is satisfying and meaningful.